Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies Chandra D. Bhimull has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue her study of connections among airline travel, diaspora, and empire.
Bhimull will be in residence at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., beginning second semester. She will continue work on her book manuscript, Empire in the Air: Speed, Perception, and the Geometry of Flight.
The Air and Space Museum is an appropriate backdrop for Bhimull’s research, which focuses on Imperial Airways (predecessor of British Airways), the ways the airline was bolstered by British Caribbean colonies between the World Wars, and how the lives of Caribbean people were shaped by airline travel. Bhimull, whose parents moved to the United States from Trinidad and the British Virgin Islands, continued to visit family there, has researched the role of the West Indies in development of flight routes from Britain to the United States and how air travel affected the evolution of empire.
She describes her book manuscript as “an historical ethnography of airspace in the Atlantic world.” And, just as air travel is in many ways boundless, Bhimull’s research and curiosity are the starting point for consideration of the myriad ramifications of “upward power and culture in the air.”
Bhimull raises intriguing questions about what some might see as commonplace. Airline travel is now ordinary, she points out, but on closer consideration, there’s nothing ordinary about, as Bhimull puts it, “dwelling in the sky.”
“When people say, ‘How was your trip?’ you explain what you did before and what you did after, on the ground, but what about that whole multiple hours in the air? What did you do? And how did you experience that? What was it like to sit beside a complete stranger?”
For Bhimull, cultural considerations don’t end when we leave the ground. For example, she has studied the first air travelers who, after flying over colonized people, felt that they “knew” the people and place, though they hadn’t visited.
Her fascination with “vertical travel” extends to experiences travelers have today. “Think about culture, not necessarily grounded, per se, but think about culture in the air—how a community, albeit one that’s very transient, forms,” she said. “What kinds of rights do people think they’re entitled to on board? What does it mean if you’re on an extended flight and you need to pray? Where do you do that in the air? Is it your right to do that? Should the airline provide a space for you?”
For Bhimull, the questions are as endless as the sky itself.